BIRDS OF A FEATHER | Shields and longswords give homoerotic meaning to the master-slave relationship in ‘The Eagle.’

Roman holiday

Homoeroticism fuels the beefcake battles of ‘Eagle’

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer

The first great gay love story of 2011 is here, though you have to read between the lines to see it. The Eagle is part of the historical beefcake genre (formerly known as the sword and sandal flick), re-popularized by Gladiator and 300. Fans of the latter will be disappointed to see these Romans wearing more than those Greeks, though they do occasionally shed their tops and sleep in loincloths.

You might rather see Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell in a dance-off than playing a master and slave who exchange roles — or maybe you wouldn’t. At least they have choreographed battle scenes, and a fight that gives them an excuse to roll around on the ground together.

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) is trying to restore the honor of his family and Rome by recapturing the symbolic eagle — the original gold standard — that disappeared 20 years before, along with 5,000 troops of the Ninth Legion under his father’s command. He volunteers for duty in Britain, near where the Ninth was last seen. When he arrives there’s a shot of some men checking him out that could have come from a prison movie. He immediately takes charge and orders the fort redecorated.

Wounded and transferred after a disastrous attack, Marcus saves that slave Esca (Bell) from a gladiator. That’s when Marcus’ uncle (Donald Sutherland), with a matchmaking gleam in his eye, assigns Esca to serve Marcus; Esca does so, “even though I hate everything you stand for.” They then meet Guern (Mark Strong), a survivor of the Ninth, who directs them to the “painted warriors” who have the eagle.

Those colorful natives have maintained their fighting skills, even though there’s no sign of anyone for them to fight. Esca and Marcus swap identities, with Marcus posing as the slave. The plot then comes down to the adage, “If you love somebody set them free.” And how far that love goes … well, that’s where the mind wanders wildly.

Tatum, though not a bad actor, is out of his depth here. It doesn’t help that he occasionally picks up an accent from one or another of his co-stars, who come from all over the Anglo-American map. Bell gives Esca the same fierce determination Billy Elliot had, but less ambiguity than the script demands.

That The Eagle was directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) explains why it looks like a class act. His battle scenes are the trendy chaotic sort, offering no context for individual close-up conflicts and making you wait until the dust clears to figure out what happened.

As serious historical fiction The Eagle doesn’t soar but neither does it crash. As a bromance … please! Closeted as it is, The Eagle may be the hottest gay love story until Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar has Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer going at it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.